22 July 2007

Worth Every Flinch

soft shell crabs
If you had told my 16 year old vegetarian self that I would one day participate in removing the lungs from a living being, I don't think I would have believed you. I should say that my teenage vegetarian days were motivated not by any sense of ethical activism but rather by a strong distaste for most meats. As a child I recoiled from the steaks and chicken my mother tried to feed me, and even today I only eat meat about once or twice a month. However, I love seafood and will happily gobble down any creature of the sea, including spindly legged soft-shell crabs.

Soft-shelled crabs are not a kid-friendly food. There's the whole legginess of them, and then there's the issue of how they crunch. For any child reading Charlotte's Web, watching your parent crunch into a sandwich with legs hanging out of it can be a disturbing experience. Also, they are a bit confusing, something you normally eat only the inside of, it's kind of like being told to eat a banana with its peel. I grew up in crab-central Maryland and I can pick a crab like a pro, but I never had a soft-shell crab until a couple years ago. Now, of course, I love them. All the things that once seemed unappealing are part of their delight: the crunch that releases their salty brine, the sweet meat inside.

pan-fried soft shell crab

Usually, we just pan fry our soft shells with a little cornmeal coating (see above photo), but I got the idea for a tempura-fried soft shelled crab, and scuttled myself over to the grocery. "Do you have any soft-shells," I asked, not seeing any in the display. "Actually, we just got some in," the fish guy said with genuine enthusiasm, "but it will be a few minutes, I have to clean them." Having recently heard a friend talking about this rather tortuous process, I asked if I could watch how he did it. Now, the fish guy knows me, but he raised his eyebrow curiously, and that's how I found myself, a petite girl, behind the counter with a bunch of large men in butcher's aprons.

The crabs were still visibly alive, and we picked out four large males. "First, I cut off the eyes," he explained, as he took a large pair of scissors, and to my horror, did exactly that. Before I had recovered from that shock, he expertly lifted the shell edge and dug around and pulled out the crab lungs. "Actually, they're called gills," he told me. Right. He gave them a quick cleaning, snipped off the apron, and proceeded to the next crab. What was disturbing was that the crabs continued to twitch even after being defaced, much like the proverbial headless chicken. "They need to be alive up until the last minute, that's what keeps the shells soft," he explained.

As a child, we would catch our own crabs and take them home and steam them for dinner. The live crabs were put in a large pot and you had to hold the lid down firmly for the first minute as their claws banged on the pan trying to escape. One time a crab managed to get out and scurried after me, angrily pinching my toes as I ran circles in the kitchen until my mother plunked it back in the pot. This is all to say that I'm pretty comfortable with the idea that cooking involves a little gore. However, I did flinch when the crabs twitched again when I went to prepare them that evening. There is something about battering and deep-frying something that just adds insult to injury. Nonetheless, I proceeded.

As soon as the crabs were on the plate, I knew they were worth every flinch. The crabs were divine. Each crunchy bite is an explosion of salty brine combined with buttery-sweet meat. There's just no other way to put it, this has to be one of the best meals of the summer. They were so good, I wasn't going to write anything about the process of prepping them for fear it would scare someone away from making them. I was just going to write about how good these are, you have to make them. Luckily, if you have access to soft-shells, they may be sold already cleaned or your fish monger will clean them for you, sparing you any gore. But somehow, I think learning about them made me appreciate each bite even more. All you have to do is cook them up, which makes this one of the best 10-minute meals I can think of.

Tempura Soft-Shell Crabs
Crunchy, salty, sweet, soft-shell crabs are a special delight. Your fish monger will clean the crabs for you, but you may also want to reach under the shell and scrape out the bright yellow crab guts, called the tomalley. Soft-shells are in season May-July.

4 soft shell crabs, cleaned
1 cup very cold mineral water
1 cup flour (preferably rice or cake flour, but all-purpose is fine)
pinch each of salt and Old Bay seasoning
oil, for deep frying

1. Heat the oil in a large, deep pot. Combine the flour in a bowl with the salt and seasonings. Add the water all at once and stir just to combine. The batter should still remain slightly lumpy, do not overmix.
2. Test that the oil is hot enough by drizzling a little of the batter into it, it should bubble up and fry. Dredge the crabs in the batter, then add to the hot oil. Fry until golden and crispy, about 3-5 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Serve immediately.

Gild the Lily: Serve the crabs with a little aioli or mayonnaise sauce drizzled on top.

See also:
French Laundry at Home cooks soft shells.
Cleaning Soft Shell Crabs


Anh said...

What a dish! I love crabs, and this recipe is a very good one. The tempura crab looks soooo good, I wish I could have some.

SteamyKitchen said...

I know I know its cruel....but ITS SOSOSOSO GOOD!!!

Soft shell crabs are one of my fav foods.

Someone Out There said...

awesome! i'm so glad to have found your site~ i can't wait to find out where i can get soft shell crab in the boston area!

Mark M - Clutterme Founder said...

I LOVE SEAFOOD. Looks especially yummy.

Anonymous said...

came across your site on Blogger's 'Blogs of note'! congrats!!

shadows of darkness said...

hey nice yummy blog ! since i m a hungry dvil all d time , its really helpful for me to try out nu things thru ur blog !

Mercedes said...

Anh- thanks, I'm glad it looks appealing to you.

Jaden- Yay, I know they're the best!

Witness/wife- Soft-shells should be readily available in the Boston area, I do hope you try them!

Mark- hooray for seafood, thanks!

joel, shadpws- thank you!

Andy said...

not sure I could eat that!

Anonymous said...

My goodness!
I'm a vegeterian for 8 years now and I hope I'll never have to do that! :P

Nice blog!

Caitlin said...

Wow, I don't think I will ever eat crab again.

tammy said...

Maybe someday I'll take a crack at that!

Fyremandoug said...

All we have here on the west coast is the yummy dungeness, but
those softshells look so good
and any shellfish is better if they are live when they hit the boil I love this site I have been lurking for a couple of weeks and thought it was prodent to pop in and say Hi

LAY-ah said...

you are making my mouth water! as a maryland girl myself, this looks like a great recipe to keep on hand. love old bay anything... and blue crabs = real crabs.

keep it coming!

Mercedes said...

Alice- I was worried I might offend some vegetarians, and I certainly hope I haven't done that. I really respect vegetarianism as a choice, and I also believe that as one who consumes animal products, it's important to know where those animal products come from and understand their preparation. I hope I haven't scared away any vegetarians, I promise this is a rare foray here!

Caitlin- Keep in mind that only soft-shells go through the process described here.

Tammy- yay, you should!

Doug- I'm so glad you decided to comment! I strongly encourage delurking, the more the merrier! In my opinion, Maryland crabs are unparallelled, but you're lucky to have dungeness.

Leah- welcome, happy to have a Marylander in the fold!

MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

Mercedes I am with you all the way. I think we really should know and appreciate all of the food we eat.
I've never had soft shell crabs, I'm thinking I should look some up.

Peabody said...

They taste so good but the texture still creeps me out.

Sandi said...

My mouth is watering. When are you publishing your book?

East Meets West Kitchen said...

Wow! I haven't tried making soft shell crabs yet, but you made it look so good that now I can't wait to try! :)

Mercedes said...

HalfCups- What a thoughtful comment, so true.

Peabody- really?! I don't mind the texture so much, I like the crunch!

Sandi- haha, never, but thanks!

east/west- i hope you do try!

Kendra said...

Call me naive... So you eat the crab shell and all? What about the legs, do you pull the meat out or eat the shell too?

Sattva said...

getting sooooo hungry just looking at your recipes - ty for sharing.

Anonymous said...

I love soft-shell crab! I haven't cooked them so your experience will be my basis :).

Stewart Kenneth Moore (Booda) said...

...your blog makes me hungry.

Anonymous said...

I, for one, am impressed. Thanks for reporting back! I have no real squeamishness when it comes to this sort of thing, but have never been able to watch the pros in action! Also you've seriously whetted my appetite.

Anonymous said...

I don't mean to put a damper on your party but I am afraid I am going to have to. I hope anyone who makes these can kill the crabs as quickly as possible before gauging out its eyes and lungs. If you say that these are the only crabs that have to go through that before you cook them then simply don't eat them. It is inhumane. If anyone is religious out there how can you think that God wants us to torture a living breathing feeling being created by God just so that we can put some bread crumbs on it and take tasty bite. Our taste Buds are not justification for cruelty.
I am not saying everyone in the world has to be vegetarian and that no one should eat meat or seafood. But at least do it in the most humane way possible. If it cannot be done in a humane way and you aren't going to keel over and die if you don't eat it then plain old don't eat it.
You yourself said you don't eat meat very often which is great. I applaud you for that. However maybe you should listen to that voice that gives you guilt. It is coming from a human, caring and compassionate place.
I am glad you posted your blog because it allows everyone to create their own opinion on it. I wish you the best of luck with the rest of your cooking. I myself really enjoy cooking. However, I hope you can find a more humane way to do it.

Mercedes said...

Hi Kendra- yes, you eat the whole thing, every bit, and the legs are the best part!

Luisa, thanks!

Jessica Rose- I'm very glad you commented, I welcome a range of opinions and views here, and I do respect your opinion. I will say that I do not feel any guilt, nor have I ever felt guilt about the ethicism of my food choices.

LUCA Chocolate said...

Your post took me back to last summer, my first in the restaurant where I used to work. We got in several cases of soft shell crabs for a new appetizer item. I worked in the pastry department, so I didn't really have any contact with them, but some of my neanderthal co-workers delighted in torturing the poor little things. I don't mean that they went through the same process you described - I mean they played with them before getting on with it.

Sometimes food preparation is gruesome. That's all the more reason to treat animals with respect and respect their sacrifice (willing or not) by wasting nothing.

I applaud your decision to share the realities of one of summer's delicacies. I think it's very important that we know where our food originates - we're so lucky to live in a country where food is more than just a means for survival.

Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

I think it is important that people know where their food comes from and how exactly it is done.
Thank you.
-A Veggie Reader

StampingJoan said...

Have been a Marylander (Ellicott City)all my life and love our Blue crabs! My hubby is from Hagerstown and doesn't share my love of steamed or softshell crabs. Grossed him out! But then again, he doesn't he much seafood anyway! I just stumbled across your blog and love it! I now have a craving for some crabs!